Guidance for policy makers

The New Zealand Disability Strategy adopts the 'social model' of disability. This draws on a human rights discourse, defining disabled people as an excluded or oppressed social group. It distinguishes between the impairments that people have and the barriers to social participation that they experience. The Strategy promotes the participation and leadership of disabled people in society, with the same access to opportunities as non-disabled people.

The following are key concepts in policy making that is consistent with the New Zealand Disability Strategy:

  • Disability
  • Impairment
  • Disabled people
  • Disability sector
  • Disability community
  • Disability perspective.


The social model of disability specifies that individuals do not have disability - it lies in society.

The experience of disability occurs when people with impairments are excluded from places and activities most of us take for granted. It happens when our infrastructure and systems do not accommodate the diverse abilities and needs of all citizens.

The experience of disability is influenced by the nature of a person’s impairment. Gender, age, ethnicity and culture can also have a profound and sometimes compounding effect on an individual’s experience of disability.

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People can have impairments.

An impairment can be intellectual, psychiatric, physical, neurological or sensory, and be temporary, intermittent or ongoing.

People may acquire an impairment through an accident or illness, and/or a person may be born with an impairment. Multiple impairments are common, especially with increasing age.

Disabled people

People with impairments are disabled if society does not provide an environment that takes their impairments adequately into account. Consequently, they experience barriers preventing their participation in society.

Disability sector

The disability sector includes organisations and people (disabled and non-disabled, professional and lay people) who work in support of disabled people and disability issues. This includes service providers and funders (both government and non-government) and umbrella agencies that represent providers and consumers for particular aspects of the disability sector.

Disability community

The disability community is a subset of the disability sector. It includes disabled people, partners, friends, families, relatives, unpaid carers and others directly involved in informal support as determined by disabled people. This includes advocacy/consumer organisations made up of and representing disabled people.

Disability perspective

A disability perspective is a viewpoint that considers the needs and aspirations of disabled people and their families.

A ‘disability perspective’ needs to be included in Government policy and service development in a systematic and appropriate way. This is because:

  • All Cabinet papers are required to consider the need for a disability perspective
  • Legislation, policy and services must not directly or inadvertently discriminate against disabled people through a failure to consider their unique life experiences and needs
  • Government departments are required to have annual work plans and report on implementation of the New Zealand Disability Strategy.

Inclusive society

The experience of disability occurs when people with impairments are excluded from places and activities most New Zealanders take for granted. Many disabled people are seriously disadvantaged by exclusion, and are unable to participate in society on an equal basis with others.

Society will be fully inclusive of disabled people when barriers to their participation (whether physical, attitudinal or otherwise) are removed, and people’s impairments are accommodated. This is the vision of the New Zealand Disability Strategy, which will be achieved only when disabled people themselves say they are highly valued and able to fully participate in society.

The following are key elements in understanding what an ‘inclusive society’ means for disabled people:

  • Visibility of disabled people
  • Deinstitutionalisation
  • Non-discrimination and equality
  • Reasonable accommodation
  • Rights of citizenship
  • Ordinary life.

Visibility of disabled people

The lack of explicit collection of data on disabled people contributes to their invisibility in government policy development. In the absence of information about disabled people, their needs go unexplored and are not addressed.

Similarly, in the absence of disabled people as leaders in their communities, disabled people can be forgotten and their needs neglected. It can be assumed that the one-size-fits-all solution will benefit disabled people along with the whole population. However, this is not necessarily so. For example, beautifying a town centre with planters, bollards and connecting metal chain may be visually appealing for many people, but it may cause problems for vision-impaired people moving about independently – the solution is to check with disabled people at the early planning stages.

It is essential to have good data collection about disabled people to raise the awareness, profile and visibility of disability issues. Adding disabled people as a category in statistics collection will help to build the evidence base.

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In the past, it was common for society to segregate disabled people away from non-disabled people. For example, institutions for people with experience of mental illness and people with an intellectual disability were often located away from the nearest town and in the countryside.

From the 1960s, there began a change in thinking in this approach and a move away from big institutions to residential facilities on a small scale. By the 1970s, government had decided to stop building institutions. Instead, the emphasis was on integrating disabled people into their community.

The process of closing down institutions, moving disabled people into living in the community and making their lives more ordinary is known as deinstitutionalisation. The outcome is for people to be able to access appropriate support services in their community (such as healthcare, or help in daily tasks like preparing food) rather than the institution – just like non-disabled people do in everyday life.

Non-discrimination and equality

Under national human rights law, not all distinctions are considered discriminatory. Discriminatory distinctions are those that impose burdens, obligations or disadvantages on individuals who are members of groups protected by the prohibited grounds of discrimination (which include disability).

Where people require different treatment to achieve equality, the failure to provide it can impose burdens, obligations and disadvantages, and is therefore considered to be discriminatory.

This central principle, that treating people equally does not necessarily mean treating them the same, is particularly relevant to disabled people. This approach can also be phrased as having equal opportunity to access a service or information or a physical place.

Most non-discrimination provisions are about what not to do, rather than requiring positive action. However, non-discrimination in relation to disability sometimes requires some positive provision. This is acknowledged in the Human Rights Act 1993, through a stipulation that any affirmative or proactive measures needed to ensure equal participation for disabled people, or needed to eliminate systemic discrimination, must be reasonable.

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Reasonable accommodation

The requirement to accommodate difference has arisen most frequently in the context of disability, and often in an employment situation. While the Human Rights Act 1993 prevents discrimination on the basis of a person’s impairment, if a person requires special services or facilities and it is not reasonable to provide these then the accommodation may not need to be provided.

Reasonable accommodation is any adjustment to a job, an employment practice, the work environment, or the manner or circumstances under which a position is held or customarily performed, that makes it possible for a qualified individual to apply for, perform the essential functions of, and enjoy the equal benefits and privileges of employment.

Interpretation of what is considered ‘reasonable’ is not always agreed, and law in this area is evolving both in New Zealand and overseas. Achieving full human rights for disabled people will require a clearer understanding of what provisions or accommodations it is reasonable to expect.

For example, it might not be reasonable for a small business, whose workplace is only accessible by stairs, to install a lift to enable access by someone with a mobility-impairment. However, it might be reasonable for an employer to change the layout of a workplace and purchase adaptive software, such as screen readers used by vision-impaired people.

Rights of citizenship

Key elements of citizenship include being part of a community and making choices about your own life (such as where you live, or the type of work you do). Citizenship gives a person rights but it also carries responsibilities. All citizens should have equal rights and equal responsibilities.

However, many disabled people are not able to enjoy their human rights and freedoms on an equal basis to other citizens. This has been attributed to a general lack of knowledge and understanding within society about disability, and also to the lack of disabled people participating in decision-making processes around policy or services that affect them.

By promoting an increased understanding of disability and supporting the participation of disabled people in policy making, for example, the rights of citizenship for disabled people will more likely be respected and ensured.

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Disabled people have the right to fully participate in all aspects of society, on the same basis as non-disabled people do. They also have the right to independent access. However, full participation by disabled people is limited by three inter-related barriers:

1.     Access - lack of equitable access to opportunities, information, buildings, transport, services, etc.

2.     Discrimination and/or attitudes - prejudice and ignorance resulting in negative discrimination or lack of appropriate accommodations.

3.     Economic and social status - a vicious cycle of lower economic, educational and health status relative to the rest of the population.

To remove these barriers to participation and independence, policy makers must identify them in their policy area and remove them as much as possible.

Universal design

Universal design promotes the development, availability and use of goods, services, equipment and facilities, including housing, that are designed to be used by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation, and promoting such design in the development of standards and guidelines. This approach encourages thinking about the lifetime of a house or building and the different kinds of people using it over that time.

For example, ensuring a house is designed with door widths wide enough to accommodate someone using a wheelchair, or having the right type of door handles so that people with different physical abilities are able to open the door.

There are seven principles that describe the universal design approach:

1.     Equitable Use - the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

2.     Flexibility in Use - the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

3.     Simple and Intuitive Use - use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

4.     Perceptible Information - the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

5.     Tolerance for Error - the design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

6.     Low Physical Effort - the design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

7.     Size and Space for Approach and Use - appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.


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